With the end of Rodrigo Duterte’s presidency and his attacks on democratic institutions like a free independent press, some Filipinos hoped for a new beginning. In contrast, others yearned for even more autocracy and a return to an era before the People Power Revolution and the restoration of democracy just a generation before.
Filipino-American filmmaker Ramona S. Diaz’s latest film, And So It Begins, is a documentary that shines the spotlight on two women: Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo, former Vice President of the Philippines (2016-2022) and an initially unwilling presidential candidate whose election campaign dominates the film; and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa, an outspoken critic of Duterte who was also the subject of Diaz’s previous documentary film, A Thousand Cuts.
I had the chance to speak with both Diaz and Ressa and talk about the film, including the continuing fight for freedom of the press and democracy, not only in the Philippines, but also across the globe. Ressa’s way of breaking the ice was to tell me that she enjoyed reading my review of the film, and that I was right about my assessment that it was Diaz’s least objective.
“I never hoped it to be objective,” Diaz responds as Ressa and I laugh. “You have all the tools, the editing, camera, lenses and sizes of shots … But I have to read it, because I seldom read reviews.”
Ressa chimes in, “While I read them all.”
In our conversation, Ressa mentions the importance of collaborative action to safeguard journalistic freedom; while Diaz hammers the importance of having hope even during a time rife with political rebranding, revisionism, and disinformation.
There are no arguments in favour of objectivity here, especially when truth is on the line.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
TAC: And So It Begins works perfectly as a companion piece to A Thousand Cuts, a film about Maria Ressa and the conflicts between the press and the Philippine government under then-president Rodrigo Duterte.
Ramona S. Diaz: It really was imagined to be a companion piece to A Thousand Cuts. That film premiered at Sundance 2020 right before the pandemic. Since then, I’ve done several interviews and Q&As where everyone kept asking the same question: “How does it end?” referring to the film’s ending which revealed Maria’s conviction of cyberlibel.
Upon acquiring A Thousand Cuts at Sundance, the film’s executive producer, Raney Aronson-Rath, suggested that we did an hour-long follow-up to the story, which we could show on television [Aronson-Rath also serves as executive producer of PBS show Frontline]. So that was the plan: I went back to the Philippines in 2021 when it was still in lockdown and started filming with Maria.
How did you dovetail Maria’s story into the events that became And So It Begins?
RSD: Maria’s concern really involved the integrity of the elections as well as the integrity of facts. And as she was saying that, the spectre of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. running against Leni Robredo in essentially a two-person race was unfolding.
As we were filming Maria, I felt that it would be a great way to incorporate that as well. I wanted to show that Maria’s concerns were real, and that they were happening right before our eyes — disinformation, revising of history, weaponization of social media, collective amnesia, and how all that affects democracy.
Maria, speaking of revisionism, what do you see as potential solutions in order to combat misinformation in the digital age?
Maria Ressa: This is something that I’ve been focused on in the last two years. The problem with going upstream to address policy is that our problems in the Philippines will not be solved in the Philippines – they’re going to be solved outside. The first place where we had any chance of getting a law passed relatively quickly was in the European Union. Very early on I had testified several times in the EU on the European Democracy Action Plan, as well as the Digital Services Act which is already out in the United States.
Today, these social media platforms that have literally corrupted the public information ecosystem are American companies. One of our actions was to rally the Nobel laureates around the 10-Point Action Plan, which drives home three important points: stop surveillance for profit, stop coded bias, and value journalism as an antidote to tyranny.
At Rappler [a Filipino online news outlet co-founded by Ressa, who also serves as CEO], we’re all exhausted because 2024 is the tipping-point year. I’ve been saying this over and over, including to Ramona, that this is the year where almost 50% of the world is going to vote on more than 50 elections all around the world. In November here in the United States, that’s the tipping point. I hope we survive it. I hope we actually get out and move into the real world so that we can regain our agency.
The battle is now. You don’t sleep, you run. We run.
Ramona, I noticed that among your character-driven documentaries, this film is interesting in a way that it invites the audience to join in on Leni’s campaign. Is that a fair assessment? Was it a conscious attempt on your part?
RSD: When I get on the field I'm drawn to certain things, and I film what I'm drawn to. In this case, I was drawn to the joy and the spectacle of elections. I've always known elections to be spectacular, having covered several elections before, including Marcos Jr.’s own gubernatorial run in Ilocos Norte. However, [Robredo’s campaign] was so over the top.
If as an audience member you feel like you’re being invited, it’s because it was the nature of what we captured. Was it intentional? Not really. But in the edit room, you would have seen the frames overflowing with people; they were never empty. That’s what we found, and that’s what I was drawn to.
I feel like observational filmmaking is a significant aspect in your approach. What can you tell me about it?
RSD: When I ask people if I can be in their lives to film them, they would say yes. But I don’t know if they know what they’re saying yes to. I mean, I’m the first one in and the last one out every day, even at times they don’t want me to be there. So when Maria said yes, I don’t think she really knew what she was saying yes to, until later on when she realized that I essentially became her new best friend [laughs].
Ultimately, I think it’s important for me to develop trust, assuring them that I wasn’t there to catch bad behaviour. Instead, I was looking for a nuanced story, and that’s what I’d stay for. I also get to have a front seat to people’s lives and do what they do. Seeing someone like Maria who continues to fight for press freedom in the country is a privilege.
Can you talk about the challenges and the rewards of capturing those authentic and unscripted moments on camera?
RSD: I love filming life unfolding in front of the lens. It’s a crazy way to make a film, because you never know what’s going to happen. There’s no safety net; you can fall and nothing will save you. You have to shoot a lot and be present all the time, because there’ll always be forks on the road. There were times I went left when I should've gone right, and those were the mistakes I had to get over with quickly.
But when it works, it feels so amazing as it really gives you so much back. Take for instance when Maria won the Nobel Peace Prize. Who knew? That was incredible.
Or when Leni talked about having to overcome her fear of flying [a fear related to her husband Jesse’s death from a plane crash in 2012]. She thought she hadn’t told anyone that story yet, until I told her that she previously shared it to the military guides while waiting for their helicopter ride.
You miss those moments if you’re not there.
This leads me to my next question for Maria. As a Nobel Prize laureate, your work has become a symbol of the fight for press freedom. What do you think individuals and communities can do in order to contribute to supporting and safeguarding press freedom in the Philippines?
MR: I actually think that Filipinos are a step ahead of the rest of the world. We’ve hit our low, and today the fear has slightly lifted. At Sundance, I always told people that they need to look to the Philippines to see what can happen to them. The fact that [Robredo’s campaign] ended in a defeat, I wonder what will happen in November [when the next U.S. presidential election occurs].
What we need to do is to keep going forward. The world is moving online, and yet it has been ceded to corporations that I’d compared to tobacco companies. Addiction has been the mode of the profit of surveillance capitalism and that is creating a new generation and really corrupting our information ecosystem.
So the first thing everyone needs is to understand that we are being insidiously manipulated, something I pointed out in my Nobel lecture in 2021. To address this, we’ve pooled together a facts-first PH pyramid, composed of around 150 groups working together to get back the center of the information ecosystem with facts. That is something we need to work on, to be collaborative and to move from being users of these platforms to becoming citizens. That’s where I think our energies need to be moving forward.
A scene in the film showed you getting the call in real time, saying you just received the Nobel Peace Prize. And one of the things you said that stuck with me was, “This is how hard it is to be a journalist.”
MR: Thank you for pointing that out. It is really tough, and the Nobel Prize serves as a recognition for that. Actually what’s happening this year is that digital news may not survive generative AI. Adding to that, as the largest distributor of news, Facebook [Meta] has choked traffic beginning last year. And if you noticed, Meta strips out any identifiers of a news organisation.
In 2019, when we saw this thing coming, I co-chaired the International Fund for Public Interest Media with Mark Thompson. Last year, we raised about $50 million that we are giving to independent news organisations globally. Also, last year we unveiled the Rappler Communities app…which took us a while to build, since tech is expensive.
Because that’s the thing: you need money in order to be able to continue, because advertising as a business model is dead. The second thing is to realize that news and journalism are all on the same side, and that we must begin to work much more closely together because the algorithms treat us the same way.
We know the ordeals of journalists fighting for press freedom across the globe as they face oppression and persecution. What advice do you have for journalists facing the same challenges globally today?
MR: Collaboration and action. That's the foundation of Facts First PH in order to help media markets continue their work for democracy in the Philippines. It is currently being rolled out in Indonesia. They’re using this for the Indonesian elections. This kind of became a model for what other countries walking into elections are going to do.
Lastly — and I haven’t stopped talking about this — we need to make sure that everyone is aware of the dangers of technology as they adapt to new tech. Because the only way forward must be through tech, and they should be [championed] by people who understand the real world.
It’s a noteworthy juxtaposition for And So It Begins to end with optimism, especially considering how the election turned out. Why do you think it’s important the film ends on such a hopeful note?
RSD: I believe that not being hopeful doesn’t help, especially at this time when a lot of things are breaking apart. And at that last rally, Leni was hopeful. She did say, “You can choose to see this as an end, or you can see this as a beginning.” So, by ending the movie that way and titling it And So It Begins, it only amplifies the hope.
MR: From A Thousand Cuts until And So It Begins, a lot has happened. Ukraine. Gaza. I mean, of all things — we have a Marcos as president! It is bleak. But the fear has slightly lifted. So I think we need to create. That’s where the energy must come from, and this is where hope comes from: that what we do will actually create our present and future. If we don’t do this now, we will lose these values that have made the Philippines a democracy.